Johnson’s nomination of pastor to transportation board gets pushback, but advances

Johnson’s nomination of pastor to transportation board gets pushback, but advances
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s proposed appointee to the Regional Transportation Authority’s board, a politically connected West Side pastor, struggled Wednesday to answer aldermen’s questions about the role and the looming financial difficulties facing the agency responsible for oversight of Metra, Pace and the Chicago Transit Authority.

The City Council Transportation Committee eventually advanced the mayor’s nomination of Ira Acree, pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church, but not before members pressed him about the many challenges facing the region’s train and bus systems. The issue has gained political currency across Chicago as riders complain about the state of service since the pandemic.

When Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th, asked Acree about his relevant transit experience, Acree cited riding the CTA trains as a kid to get to school. Vasquez followed up by asking when was the last time he used public transportation.

“As a man, I don’t have to use CTA. I’m fortunate to have a car,” Acree said. “But I use the CTA often when I come downtown because, even though I am a working pastor, these prices, parking tickets are super high.”

Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd, went next, asking what conversations Acree had with the mayor about the appointment. They did not discuss the role, Acree said.

“He’s a busy guy,” Acree said. “This is very important, but he has got much bigger fish to fry.”

“I would disagree with you,” Waguespack said. “When you’re appointed to a position like this, the person that is appointing you should be explaining why they are appointing and should understand the needs of the system.”

Waguespack then asked Acree how he would address the $730 million budget shortfall facing the RTA, a well-publicized crisis facing the agency as federal COVID-19 relief funds start running out.

“Well, No. 1, this is my first time hearing about a $735 million shortfall, so I would not want to respond to that today without doing the research,” Acree said.

After the hearing, Acree told reporters he misspoke when he said he was not aware of the massive financial cliff facing the RTA. “Misstep, a lot of pressure,” he said. “I know about it.”

When Acree was asked what he would do about the critical issue, an aide promptly ushered him away. “Let me have time to think about it and I can respond later,” he said as he walked away.

Waguespack also asked the nominee what he thought about fare integration — the possibility of connecting CTA, Metra and Pace fares. When Acree did not give a clear answer, Waguespack explained the concept of fare integration.

Later, as Ald. Jessie Fuentes, 26th, asked Acree why he thinks the CTA has not returned to pre-pandemic ridership levels while other cities have, Acree answered: “That’s a trick question.”

Acree added that CTA leadership must do a better job, but said he would not commit to pushing for the firing of embattled CTA President Dorval Carter.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker recently called for an “evolution of the leadership” at the CTA, as Carter has looked to Springfield for solutions to the looming budget crisis.

Acree drew support Wednesday from West Side aldermen like Ald. Chris Taliaferro, 29th. He praised the pastor’s work within the community and argued he enhances the diversity of viewpoints for a board that includes businesspeople, transportation experts and politicians. Acree’s experience as an organizer will help him bring positive change, he said.

“His leadership goes beyond the four walls of a church,” Taliaferro said. “I need someone with a voice. Someone who is going to stand up for my community, for my ward.”

Acree named safety and returning the CTA to its “glory days” as top priorities while pointing to his nontransit resume as a boon. “I bring a unique perspective to the board,” he said. “If I’m given the honor to serve on this board, the voice of urban Chicago will be represented very well.”

Acree’s strong connections were on display Wednesday as the Rev. Jesse Jackson sat in the front row of the hearing chamber. When the questioning ended, only two aldermen — Waguespack and Vasquez — voted against the appointment. Acree’s nomination will now go up for a final vote before the full City Council.

The nomination comes shortly after lawmakers in Springfield introduced a bill that would do away with the RTA as a stand-alone agency, as part of a broader look at transit funding amid the budget shortfall. The proposal would merge the RTA, CTA, Metra and Pace and revamp board appointments, but the concept is likely to face stiff debate.

Acree avoided taking a side on the merger and said he would wait to view data and talk with commuters before making a decision.

The West Side pastor was an early supporter of former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s 2019 campaign. But in the last mayoral election, he endorsed Johnson’s bid and chipped in public appearances alongside the then-candidate. After Johnson won, Acree unsuccessfully sought to be appointed to the Cook County Board seat the new mayor vacated.

Johnson appointed another West Side pastor, the Rev. Michael Eaddy, pastor of the People’s Church of the Harvest Church of God in Christ, to the Chicago Transit Authority’s board last month. The appointment drew no pushback as it passed in the City Council’s Transportation committee and then through the full council.

Later, transit activist group Commuters Take Action criticized Eaddy for having “no relevant transit experience.” Eaddy, a former member of the Chicago Police Board, also supported Johnson’s campaign for mayor. Johnson also recently appointed to the CTA board Roberto Requejo, the former head of Elevated Chicago, an organization focused on equitable transit-oriented development,

Both the CTA and RTA board positions generally pay $25,000 a year and require monthly board meetings.

When asked in Springfield about why he selected Acree, Johnson praised his “real lived experience.” Such systems are designed for people who have a “corporate response,” but should better represent everyday people, he added.“The people who are closest to the challenges we have must be a part of the decision-making,” Johnson said.

After the hearing, Vasquez — a frequent critic of the mayor’s handling of the CTA — said the Acree nomination showed Johnson’s administration is not serious enough about the transit agency’s challenges.

“People across the city complain about our transposition on all sides of town. About safety and reliability. They have done it for years now,” Vasquez said. “For this to not even have a real process, a real conversation, for the nominee not to even get a call from the mayor about this, I think people have a right to be concerned about the future of transportation in our city.”